Theatre Review: Anne Boleyn @ Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

By Zoe Craig Last edited 102 months ago
Theatre Review: Anne Boleyn @ Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Miranda Raison shines as Anne Boleyn in Howard Brenton's new play. Photo by Manuel Harlan
"Do you want to see it?" a white-clad Miranda Raison demands, wide eyed and teasing, at the very start of Howard Brenton's new play, Anne Boleyn. "Do you?!"

(There's a head-shaped bag under her arm...)

So begins a new addition to what the playwright describes as the cult of Anne Boleyn. If you're a fan, in recent years alone you can feast on the BBC's The Tudors, books by Phillipa Gregory, Antonia Fraser, Hilary Mantel, and that Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman.

Howard Brenton's new play shines light on this popular subject from a different angle. As well as showing us the machinations of the Tudor court (Henry VIII trying to divorce his now-barren first wife and take up with his sexy new mistress), we're also shown Anne's impact on King James I's court, almost 70 years after her death.

It's a nice touch. James is trying to unite the different religious groups that threaten to pull the country apart. After discovering Anne's coronation dress and "heretical" books in the palace, he becomes haunted, quite literally, by "that Boleyn witch".

Brenton's play takes Boleyn's already fascinating story beyond the simplistic "need for a male heir" argument, and shows how her ideas for Protestant reform lead to a new England, an incredible new Bible based on said heretical books, and even (it's hinted) to Civil War.

Miranda Raison plays Anne with a wonderful self-confidence. She flits between the audience-addressing ghost, and a clever, driven, religious reformer, clearly in love with Henry (Anthony Howell, who's excellent) with ease. "There will now be a 15-minute interval!" she winks, having finally agreed to give up her seven years' teasing and sleep with the king.

When she's arrested towards the end, one of Thomas Cromwell's henchmen breaks down. "I was in love with her!" he cries. "So were we all," replies John Dougall's brilliantly machiavellian Cromwell. It feels like the audience could nod in agreement.

Better still is James Garnon's wonderfully weird outsider King James, riddled with Tourette's and/or epilepsy. One moment, Garnon's twitching, spitting and stammering through an almost monstrous variety of tics; the next he's wearing that haunting dress, engaged in a homoerotic dance with a dashing courtier; the next he's bursting pompous religious leaders' bubbles with stunning, intelligent rhetoric. It's an incredible performance from this brilliant actor.

Brenton's energetic script packs in a lot, from Presbyterianism to the Tudor's rudimentary contraceptive options, and the writer mines a nice comic seam in the bathos of long poetic passages suddenly pushed up against 21st-century vernacular. (Henry complains of "a raging hard-on"; Queen Katherine, says Anne, is "such a cow.")

There are flaws. The ending seems rushed; Henry suddenly being fed Jane Seymour as a new mistress jars when he's clearly been so in love with Anne, and we expected more from the final meeting between James and Anne's ghost.

But Anne Boleyn is a thoroughly enjoyable new history. It suits The Globe perfectly, nodding to Shakespeare but bristling with newness. We loved it.

Anne Boleyn plays at Shakespeare's Globe until 21 August. You could make it a double bill with Henry VIII, we'd recommend seeing it second: it's easier on the ear. Tickets from £5 to £35. Visit or call 020 7401 9919 for more information.

Last Updated 29 July 2010